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In The American Public Education System, Black Children Are The New Cotton

In The American Public Education System, Black Children Are The New Cotton

W.E.B. Du Bois warned us in 1935 that turning Black children over to white America for their daily education risked making them “doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers whose sole claim to superiority is the ability to kick ‘niggers’ when they are down.”

We didn’t listen. More than a century later, the majority of Black children sit in classrooms with mostly white teachers who think very little of their potential and humanity.

Years ago, civil rights leader Julian Bond told us, “violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving six years’ worth of education.” The six out of 12 years’ worth of education that he said our kids get is — in my estimation — little more than rote memorization and state-sponsored cultural suicide intended to vaccinate young Black minds against free thought and self-determined lives.

Historian and journalist Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote about the post-slavery years, saying “in 1865, when emancipation became a fact, about one in every twenty Negroes could read and write. Thirty-five years later, more than one out of every two could read and write.”

122 years later, less than one in five Black fourth graders are “proficient” in reading.

You may be surprised to learn that none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself warned us against blind trust in public schools and their teachers. Two of his parishioners, both Black high school educators, said he told them “white people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.”

Yet, here we are, every morning turning over 8 million black children, the minds of our race and hope of our future, to an education system owned and operated by white governors, billion-dollar textbook companies, 3 million mostly white teachers, and 14,000 school boards composed of members who are generally whiter, wealthier and more Republican than the students they supposedly represent.

Still, no group in America supports tax-funded universal public education, public schools and educators more than Black folks. We support them even knowing in the back of our minds that these schools weren’t built for us, and their teachers have never been nominally prepared to spur our children to reach their highest potential. Perhaps we do it because several generations of academic Kool-Aid tell us it’s the best shot our kids have at becoming truly American, successful and valued. Perhaps we do it because we see no other option.

In The American Public Education System, Black Children Are The New Cotton
The group of nine African American students walk past members of the National Guard as they use a side door to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

King’s warning is especially ironic when you consider the counterintuitive consequences of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which includes shuttered Black schools, fired Black teachers, demoted Black principals, and the loss of all their years of pedagogical knowledge — collectively something I call “Black Educational Capital.” The racial theology that drove Brown concluded that Black-run spaces, especially schools, are inherently inferior in comparison to white ones. That anti-Black maxim lives on today in white progressive integrationist orthodoxy that insists Black students can’t learn without a seat next to white students. That contribution to the belief gap is old, pernicious and more violent than the crack of any other whip. Operating a society on the premise of Black inferiority is bad enough, but to teach it to young, impressionable Black youth as a national truism is an evil and irreparable molestation.

Today, many Black children attend schools with more metal detectors than mental health services, more police officers than counselors and more of a look of a starter prison than a school.

It is still legal for educators to beat school children in 19 states, which, as you might imagine, disproportionately affects Black boys. Black girls are five times more likely to be suspended from school and four times more likely to be arrested at school when compared to white girls. According to one study, nonwhite students had the least access to four resources essential for college-bound students: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement and teachers who hold high expectations.

These types of statistics are so common we might consider them normal. But, they are not. They are violence, plain and simple.

The War On Black Education, From Left To Right

In the American public education system, Black children are the new cotton. They are a headcount that generates revenue for a national army of “experts” who fight fiercely to keep our kids’ per-pupil revenue locked up in whatever cartel they control. Black youth are the most studied, and the least taught. They are the perfect captives because you can raise funds for their bodies without ever being accountable for improving their minds.

After years of thinking about education “reform,” and studying the policies of America’s political right and left wings, I came to a provocative conclusion about all of this. It is this: if you want to ensure that Black people never reach their full potential, there would be no more efficient way to make that happen than to demand we turn over our babies at age 5 to the American public education system.

“Today, many Black children attend schools with more metal detectors than mental health services, more police officers than counselors and more of a look of a starter prison than a school.”

White conservatives and progressives aren’t opposing forces; they are joint shareholders in our educational captivity. To maintain their power, each finds its token Black voices — corporate assimilated Blacks on one side versus scripted unionist adherents on the other — to slog it out on social media and in white paper Mandingo fights as if either side could ever do our interests justice.

On one side, conservatives argue public school failure is eternal while conveniently discounting our claims of systemic racism. They white-splain issues of racially disparate outcomes in student discipline that punishes Black children more harshly than white children, bias in school funding that shortchanges Black communities, and rampant Eurocentrism in the curriculum that diminishes and bleaches Black history. In return for our assistance in helping them dismantle traditional public education, they offer us one proposal: vouchers to schools that either don’t yet exist, or, if they do, ones that are more culturally incompetent than the district schools they want to destroy.

The price we pay for their version of “educational freedom” is ignoring how their private school coupons come with a demand that we accept that on every other policy front, they are actively attempting to disenfranchise us from the vote, to make us subject to more police abuse, and to prevent our children from learning about the ways this country has systematically dogged our human rights.

Of all their oversights, the unequal funding of school districts is the most material. On this front, progressive legal scholar Derek Black argues that the ghost of Jim Crow still colors the way we localize public education funding, which makes it so communities with low property values cannot compete for dollars with better-off communities. In nearly every state in the nation, funding schemes send more resources to better-off students. Even while the evidence says there is a connection between school funding and college attendance, graduation rates and test scores, school districts with the most students of color draw $1,800 less per student than whiter districts.

On the other end of the white supremacy spectrum, progressives are problematic allies too.

They over-index on teachers’ unions as the sole crafters of their educational thinking, and see parents as important only when we speak the union gospel. America loves its teachers, but Black America should remember what Malcolm and Martin said about white liberals and supposed allies.

Evidence of anti-Black bias in teaching starts early. When Black students have white teachers, they are viewed as older than they are, seen as less innocent, and are less likely to be identified as gifted, more likely to experience exclusionary discipline, and more likely to experience lower classroom expectations.

These are the experts that our friends on the left look to for all of their educational advice, even when we disagree.

Because progressives’ highest affection is for classroom personnel, they have counterproductive attitudes about measuring teaching, learning and outcomes. They are allergic to accountability for results. They have convinced the public that any attempt to test students, rate teachers or measure learning is an “attack” on their schools. Instead of trusting data, they propose we trust them. Given all we know about bias in their ranks, it just doesn’t make sense.

Rebuilding Black Educational Capital

There was never a time when Black Americans were unclear about the connection between education, literacy and freedom. From the very beginning, African Americans who had not acquired English literacy set about learning how to read not just as a function of ordinary child development, but as a tool for being able to decode all the ways in which America was attempting to curtail our freedom. In this pursuit of literacy, we developed secret systems of learning. Under trees, in ditches, in basements and in back rooms in the darkness, we would not be punished for daring to learn how to read and own the educative process for ourselves.

Our freedom now requires us to reclaim that sense of mission and ownership over the intellectual development of our children.

Before 1954, the majority of Black children were in the daily care of a Black educator. The resources in pre-Brown black schools were subpar, as they are now, but the pedagogy prowess of Black teachers was unmatched. Scholar and author Vanness Siddle Walker says these teachers “increased the literacy rate, decreased the dropout rate, increased the college attendance rate, and began to create higher test scores once they finally got some equipment in the 1960s, and they did without having the things all these other [white] schools had.”

Young African American children attending a reading lesson in a segregated elementary school, Washington, D.C., March 1942.
Young African American children attending a reading lesson in a segregated elementary school, Washington, D.C., March 1942.

Historical via Getty Images

The good news is not all of us are asleep at the educational wheel. Jawanza Kunjufu’s book “Countering The Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys” has sold over a million copies, which means at least one in eight families of Black public school students understand the need to think critically about our relationship with the system. Black educators like my colleague Sharif El-Mekki are building a pipeline of Black teachers through his Center for Black Educators Development. Hiewet Senghor created the Black Teacher Collaborative to create conditions so that every Black student will be in challenging and affirming learning environments created by Black educators with pedagogies that will bring an end to the erasure of Black identity in the curriculum. Investors like Daryl Cobb at the Charter School Growth Fund are supporting the formation of Black-led, independently-run public schools. Kaya Henderson and Roland Fryer are operating a Black education platform (Reconstruction.us) that educates children and adults virtually. And Naomi Shelton, working alongside an ecosystem of HBCU-aligned organizations, leads a collaborative of single-site charter school leaders of color who focus intently on nurturing young Black minds. Finally, the increase in Black homeschooling means many more Black students are moving from the carceral pedagogies of the public school system and into loving environments constructed just for them.

We don’t need to agree on the particulars of systemic racism and educational philosophies. There is no one best system for all of our children. We only have to honor the one claim central to America reconciling its Negro problem: Black people are not free until they can exercise maximum determination in the most major aspects of their lives. That requires them to be fully in control of determining how and what their children with the least interference from their historic captors.

Anything else is violence and, sadly, patently American.